Ways to prevent identity theft


  • The three most common types of identity theft are financial, medical and online
  • Take precautions to help prevent identity theft and learn to recognize the red flags
  • If you have been a victim of identity theft, report it to the authorities

If media reports have you thinking that cybercrime has evolved from isolated outbreaks to epidemic proportions, it can be hard to figure out where the sensationalism ends and the real threat begins.

"It's true that attempted security breaches are on the rise. That said, as hackers have become more sophisticated, federal agencies and financial institutions have evolved to stay abreast of their techniques."
Scott More, Vice President of Information Security at Ameriprise Financial

Types of identity theft

The three most common types of identity theft are financial, medical and online. Learn how you can prevent them and what to do if they happen to you.

1. Financial identity theft

Most people associate identity theft with this type of crime, which involves the use of personal information to take over financial accounts.

If you notice suspicious activity on a credit card or bank statement

  • Contact all financial institutions where you hold accounts and place a 90-day fraud alert on your credit reports by contacting all three credit reporting agencies individually (see resources at end of article). This prevents identity thieves from opening new accounts in your name, as most lenders need to review your credit report before approving an account.

Protect your Social Security number

  • This is one of the most important steps you can take to safeguard your financial holdings — from bank to credit card accounts.
  • Many are not aware that a Social Security number can also be used to gain access to your tax records — and refunds. Filing your tax return early can lessen the chances of someone else accessing your refund, as duplicative returns will raise red flags with the IRS.

2. Medical identity theft

Did you know that your health insurance information can be used by someone else to see a doctor, get prescription drugs or file claims to your insurance provider?

How you can protect yourself against medical identity theft

  • Be sure to read all medical and insurance statements carefully, and if something looks unfamiliar to you, call your health insurance customer service number to cross-reference your information with theirs.
  • If it appears someone used your information, alert your medical providers immediately. Be prepared to gather supporting documentation to send to all parties involved.
  • Finally, follow up with both insurance and medical providers to make sure all errors have been amended.

3. Online identity theft

A sharp increase in social media use means greater opportunities than ever before to steal identities or perpetuate fraud online.

Tips to help you protect yourself when using social media

  • It may seem harmless to post on your profile that you'll be out of town or bought a new car. But in the age of oversharing, seemingly innocent information can be dangerous if it gets into the wrong hands.
  • When it comes to stalking or stealing an identity, use of photo- and video-sharing sites provides deeper insights into you and those you care about, your house and places you like to frequent.
  • Each time you make a social media status update, think about whether it could be used to compromise your privacy or security in any way.
  • Be selective when accepting network invites, and remember that it's not "unfriendly" to decline adding someone you don't know — it's common sense.

Safety checklist for identity theft prevention

While institutions are continuously adapting to the latest cybercrime techniques, the first line of defense is often at home, since identity thieves specialize in hacking personal computers.

1. Watch for phishing  

"The most common technique, known as phishing, could involve receiving an email indicating your account has been compromised, that you need to validate your information or that there's something wrong with an order," More says. "This is a red flag — should you receive such an email, delete it and do not respond.”

2. Verify virus alerts

Another common scam involves a fake "virus alert" with an 800 number to call for help. "Whatever you do, don't call the number," More says. "If you are concerned, contact a known and trusted source, such as an authorized electronics service center."

3. Update your software

One of the easiest ways to protect yourself from identity theft is to keep your computer technology updated. "Hackers exploit software vulnerabilities of people who haven't kept their software and anti-virus programs current, and those annoying updates are actually plugging security holes that exist within the system," More says. "Set your system to auto-update so you know it will be maintained by a legitimate provider."

4. Beware of phone scams

Remember that not all identity theft takes place through a computer. Phone calls are an increasingly popular way to gather security information. "Be suspicious when someone calls and asks you for personal or secure information," More says. "If you don't recognize the caller, don't give them any answers."

Who to call if you have been a victim of cybercrime

If you are a victim of cybercrime, file a local police report and contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to file an identity theft affidavit.

Federal Trade Commission

Identity Theft Hotline
Phone: 1.877.438.4338 (1.877.ID.THEFT)
Online: identitytheft.gov

These actions will create an official FTC Identity Theft Report and can help you access information about other breaches, stop creditors from collecting identity-theft-driven debt and erase false information from credit reports.

Credit bureau fraud alert hotlines

Equifax: 1.888.766.0008
Experian: 1.888.397.3742
TransUnion: 1.800.680.7289